Summer weather, air-conditioned open-air stadiums, and viruses? A few days before the kick-off of the very controversial 2022 World Cup, Qatar is preparing to host the sports high mass, its procession of national teams and supporters from all over the world.
But after nearly three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, another coronavirus poses a health threat to this world: the camel virus, a potentially dangerous respiratory virus. Are there any reasons to worry? Is this virus easily transmitted? Can it cause contagion?
What is camel virus and where does it occur?
It belongs to the family of coronaviruses, like Covid-19 and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). “It was identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, which earned it the name of MERS-CoV, for “middle east respiratory syndrome” coronavirus, or respiratory syndrome of the Middle East, which was attributed to it by the World Health Organization. Health (WHO)”, explains to 20 minutes Vincent Enouf, virologist and deputy director of the National Reference Center (CNR) for influenza in the Pasteur Institute.
This is a direct indication of its place of circulation. “A few imported cases have been reported on the margins, but MERS has always remained very localized, limited to this region of the globe”, assures the virologist. Thus, since its appearance in 2012, “twenty-seven states have reported cases of MERS to the WHO”, explains the organization, in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States. And “about 80% of human cases have been reported by Saudi Arabia, mainly following direct or indirect contact with infected camels or infected people in health establishments, confirms the WHO. Cases identified outside the Middle East are usually people who appear to have been infected in the Middle East and then traveled to areas outside the region.”
And if it is also called camel virus, it is because of its mode of transmission, through direct contact with the flagship animals of the region, camels and dromedaries, which can be carriers and contaminate humans.
Is this coronavirus dangerous? What are its symptoms?
Like Covid-19 and seasonal flu, we find “among the usual symptoms of MERS fever, cough and shortness of breath, details the WHO. The presence of pneumonia is common, but patients with MERS do not always develop this condition. Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea, have also been reported in these patients. In addition, “severe forms of the disease can lead to respiratory failure requiring mechanical ventilation and management in intensive care units”. Either a clinical picture similar to that of Covid-19. And in the same way, “the most serious cases of MERS, and the deaths it caused, mainly concerned people at risk, with comorbidities”, notes Vincent Enouf.
But the two coronaviruses differ on certain points. There is currently no treatment or vaccine against MERS. And a very high lethality rate is associated with the camel virus, since according to the figures identified, “about 35% of cases of infection by MERS-CoV notified to the WHO resulted in the death of the patient”, indicates the organization. However, “since we discovered this virus, we know that there are many healthy carriers. A populational immunity has probably set up locally”, tempers Vincent Enouf. There is “may be an overestimate of the actual mortality rate, as mild cases of MERS-CoV may have escaped existing surveillance systems”, abounds the WHO. But the figures are incomparable with Covid-19: since its detection in 2012, around 2,500 cases of MERS have been reported to the WHO, causing 858 deaths.
However, in the event of suspected contamination by MERS, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommends “on the spot, in the event of high fever, cough and/or breathing difficulties, to consult a doctor without delay. And, in the event of fever or respiratory symptoms in the days following the return to France, to call Center 15 and report your trip”.
Is there a risk of spreading the virus and can we protect ourselves against it?
“This is not a subject of major concern today within the CNR laboratories, reassures Vincent Enouf. There is no epidemic situation. But in an event like the World Cup, with thousands of people coming to Qatar from all over the world, zero risk does not exist. It’s just impossible to quantify. Perhaps there will be a few imported cases of people coming back infected from Qatar, as we have seen in the past, after having been in contact with camelids. At the time, when it happened, it did not subsequently cause dissemination: MERS has limited human-to-human transmissibility, much lower than Covid-19”.
For the time being, no restrictions have been issued by the French health authorities for its nationals traveling to Qatar. In its advice to travelers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises, however, “as far as possible, to avoid all contact with animals, in particular with camels and dromedaries. It is strongly advised not to consume camel meat or camel milk”. And in a context of still active circulation of Covid-19 and faced with the risk of MERS, the ministry insists on respect for barrier gestures: “Classic hygiene measures are recommended to limit the risks of transmission, in particular regular washing hands with soap and water or with a hydro-alcoholic solution”.
Because the Covid-19, as we have said, is still part of the picture. “We are still detecting it all over the world, and significant epidemic resumptions are observed, especially in China, recalls Vincent Enouf. So if travelers are careful to respect barrier gestures, they will kill two birds with one stone against Covid-19 and MERS”.